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Solving murder with DNA

Two 39-year-old murder cases have been solved using new genetic technology.

In late November, many Canadian newspapers reported that police had solved two 39-year-old murder cases using new genetic technology. The technology led to a single suspect who was not initially a person of interest. Further genetic confirmation (using a court-issued DNA warrant) led to the arrest of the individual, who remains only a suspect until the court case is completed. While the arrest may bring some closure to the families of the two victims, it of course does not bring back their loved ones.

New police case

Investigative genetic genealogy is one of several new technologies useful for police work. Suppose a biological sample is available, whether from an unidentified death or a crime scene, and it is still viable. Pieces of the DNA in the sample can be matched to a database compiled from people who have had their DNA tested for personal reasons. This technology, for example, allows adopted individuals who want to connect to their biological family to discover parents, siblings and cousins. In the same way, police investigations can discover individuals connected to their biological sample and use this information, among other clues, to zero in on a suspect or identify a body.

As with any technology, investigative genetic genealogy raises ethical issues and has the potential to be abused. Some of these ethical issues are well known, but further ramifications may not yet be clear. An obvious problem is informed consent. When you get your DNA tested, do you agree to let it be used for police work? And for what types of cases? Your participation has implications for your family members because they become identifiable through similarity to your DNA. Sometimes identified individuals can be ruled out for obvious reasons – for example, when police are looking for a rapist, females are excluded. But other false positives are not so clear, so an innocent person may have to live with suspicion till additional information is collected. Another issue: DNA databases are often composed of mostly white middle- and upper-class individuals. How does the prevalence of a particular ethnicity or class affect the result of an investigation? And this all assumes that the police and government do not abuse their power in accessing the data.

Faithful discernment

Despite these ethical issues, most people are happy to hear a 39-year-old crime has been solved. As with many technological advances, we must work out the implications of genetic genealogy for our status as children of God who serve our Lord Jesus. Scripture does not speak directly about how to use and not abuse genetic genealogy, let alone how it may be helpful to police. The direction we should take – loving and caring for our neighbours – is clear, but what that means practically is uncertain. In some ways, I wish I was an Israelite living in Old Testament times, as the rules in the books of Moses would then plainly show me how to live as a member of that agricultural society. But by God’s grace we have come to learn more and more about God’s creation, and we must do the hard work of faithfully discerning the many new technologies available today.

Author

  • Rudy Eikelboom

    Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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